Volume 24: Jan. – Mar. 1780


This volume opens on 1 Jan. 1780 with GW in winter quarters at Morristown, N.J., and in his fifth year of war as commander in chief of the Continental army.  Having established his headquarters at the Ford mansion on 1 Dec. 1779, he will reside there for the duration of his stay in Morristown.

During the weeks covered by this volume, the Continental army experienced the harshest winter of the war.  For the editors of GW’s papers, the winter is also particularly notable in that we have his personal record of the weather: during his residence at Morristown, GW kept a daily weather diary.  Among his observations, GW noted the weather’s impact on military operations, particularly on the conditions of the roads.  Thus, his weather diary has been used where appropriate in annotation.

For winter quarters, GW had spread his main army across three states.  Ten infantry brigades were camped at Jockey Hollow near Morristown and were under his direct command.  Also under GW’s direct command at Morristown were Brig. Gen. Henry Knox’s four artillery regiments.  GW had assigned the army’s four Massachusetts brigades to the Highlands department, commanded by Maj. Gen. William Heath (succeeded on 22 Feb. by Maj. Gen. Robert Howe).  The chief task of these brigades was to defend the strategically important fortress of West Point on the Hudson River in New York.  The New Hampshire brigade, posted at Danbury, Conn., also was assigned to Heath’s command.  GW had ordered the main army’s two cavalry regiments, under the command of Col. Stephen Moylan, to winter quarters in several cantonments in Connecticut.  In January, Moylan was still marching these regiments to their camps.  GW had stationed the two partisan corps of Colonel Armand and Maj. Henry Lee in the interior of New Jersey.  Both corps, though, maintained patrols near the coast.  GW kept a brigade-strength detachment, under the command of a general or senior colonel, deployed constantly in the area around Elizabeth, N.J., as a first line of defense against British raids.  Finally, GW kept two regiments on New York’s northern frontier: one at Fort Schuyler on the upper reaches of the Mohawk River and a smaller regiment at Fort George on the south end of Lake George.

Due to distance, GW maintained only an irregular correspondence with his commanders in the western and southern departments.  At Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania, Col. Daniel Brodhead commanded two Continental regiments and several independent companies.  At Charleston, S.C., Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln commanded the southern army.  In the fall of 1779, GW had become concerned about the weakness of the southern army and had decided to send reinforcements to Lincoln.  As this volume opens, the Virginia and North Carolina lines, dispatched by GW late that year, were marching to join Lincoln’s army.

During the period of this volume, British commanding general Henry Clinton had divided his army into two main forces.  Clinton himself, along with Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, commanded the expeditionary army launched against Lincoln’s army at Charleston.  In January 1780, that British army was sailing toward a landing on the Georgia coast.  After Clinton landed his army, GW began receiving frequent letters from Lincoln reporting on events in South Carolina.  Meanwhile, in Clinton’s absence, German lieutenant general Wilhelm von Knyphausen temporarily commanded the crown forces in the New York City area.  During the period of this volume, Knyphausen received and responded to all GW’s communications directed to the British commander in chief.

The severity of the winter did not prevent GW from mounting an offensive against British forces.  Ice had formed a natural bridge between New Jersey and Staten Island, while floating ice in the Hudson River made reinforcing the island from New York City difficult for Knyphausen.  GW decided to use the situation to launch a major attack on the enemy’s forts on the island.  He assigned Major General Stirling to command the strike and assigned him 2,600 troops.  On 12 Jan., Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene provided GW with his recommendations for the attack, and on the next day GW gave Stirling his instructions.  GW also sent Alexander Hamilton and Tench Tilghman, two of his most trusted aides-de-camp, to help coordinate the offensive.  On 13 Jan., Stirling requested GW’s approval for a simplified attack plan, which GW ratified the same day.  Stirling launched the strike as planned in the early morning of 15 Jan., but on the next day he reported to GW that the operation had failed.  Deep snowdrifts, biting cold, and the strength of the enemy’s forts had forced the general to order a retreat, but he had managed to withdraw his brigades from the island intact.  Although the attack was fruitless, it provides evidence of GW’s aggressive generalship: a major winter attack designed to cut off and capture enemy garrisons.  Even after the failure of this offensive, GW authorized his commanders to carry out small-scale raids on Staten Island if conditions warranted.

GW’s enemy was not idle, either.  In addition to several raids on New Jersey towns, the British launched two major strikes.  On 4 Feb., Heath reported to GW that the enemy had surprised his forward detachment at White Plains, New York.  In a follow-up report six days later, Heath sent the doleful news that fourteen men had been killed, seventeen wounded, and more than ninety taken prisoner.  The second enemy strike was not nearly as damaging, but Knyphausen’s goal was far more ambitious: to seize GW at the Ford mansion and carry him into New York City as a prisoner.  On 11 Feb., Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, commanding the brigade in the Elizabeth area, informed GW of the attack and quick retreat of the multiple infantry and cavalry columns involved in the raid.  Yet it was the deep snow, and not American bullets, that had stopped the cavalry force Knyphausen had sent to capture GW.

Enemy operations, however, were not the greatest threat to the survival of GW’s army.  The harshness of the winter, the precarious state of Continental finances, and the resulting lack of provisions threatened the army with starvation.  The inability to get supplies to the army through normal means forced GW to take emergency action to feed his troops at Jockey Hollow.  On 7 Jan., he sent a circular letter to the magistrates of every county in New Jersey asking for their cooperation in a “requisition” of grain and beef provisions for the army.  On 8 Jan., GW ordered field officers into every county to supervise the collection of supplies.  Over the course of the next several weeks, GW received dispatches from his officers reporting their success in gathering the supplies and securing the ready cooperation of the people and magistrates.  By 27 Jan., GW could report to Samuel Huntington, president of Congress, that the army at Morristown was “comfortable and easy” in regard to provisions.  GW’s letter of 2 Feb. to the magistrates thanking them for their cooperation and “patriotic exertions” is an excellent example of GW’s diplomacy with government officials, an underappreciated aspect of his generalship.  But despite the requisition’s success, transportation and supply difficulties continued to plague GW.  Almost every letter from Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, his quartermaster general, spoke of his department’s troubles in moving supplies due to Congress’s inability to provide money.

In these weeks, GW continued to oversee several espionage rings, including the famed Culper spies.  He became dissatisfied with the delays in receiving the Culpers’ intelligence reports, which had to traverse portions of three states before reaching him at Morristown.  On 22 Feb., GW wrote to Lt. Col. Marinus Willett about setting up a new spy ring to gather intelligence in New York City and establish easier communication routes to headquarters.  GW’s other agents, including his longtime operative John Mercereau, were more active than the Culpers in this period.  Major General Howe had his own spies in New York City.  On 4 March, Howe sent an urgent letter to GW requesting answers to the inquiries of one of his agents.  Three days later, GW answered him with a false intelligence report designed to deceive the British high command.

As usual, administration of the army consumed much of GW’s time.  His most pressing concern was the need to recruit replacements for the men whose three-year enlistments were due to expire in 1780.  GW had already addressed Congress on the matter on 18 Nov. 1779, and in January he sent Major General Steuben, the army’s inspector general, to Philadelphia to discuss the issue with Congress and the Board of War.  On 18 Jan., GW advised Huntington of Steuben’s mission and urged a hasty decision on determining the size of the army.  GW was concerned that rumors of peace would hinder Congress in taking strong action to prepare for the next campaign.  “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet the enemy,” GW told Congressman Elbridge Gerry on 29 January.  By 9 Feb., Congress finally had come to the same conclusion, and on the next day, Huntington informed GW of its decision.  Under pressure from the Chevalier de La Luzerne, the French minister plenipotentiary, to make vigorous efforts for the coming year, Congress voted to require the states to fill the army’s regiments to more than 35,000 men.  After receiving the president’s letter, GW immediately set the administrative wheels in motion by informing the states in his 20 Feb. circular of the shortfalls in their regiments.

His administrative burden had become so heavy by 12 Feb. that GW felt compelled to reveal his difficulties to the army.  He informed his officers and men that it was “impossible” for him to execute the duties of commander in chief as long as he was encumbered by the “minutious details” brought before him due to the chain of command’s lack of adherence to army regulations.  In a rare instance of acknowledging his personal burden in commanding the army, GW expounded at length in a letter to Stirling of 5 March.  GW believed that his general officers were not doing enough to help him manage the army.  He lamented that, despite his desire to dedicate much more of his time to inspection and supervision of the army, he constantly found that his vast administrative burden tied him to his desk and hindered the performance of these important duties.

He also found his command burden increased by the lack of general officers in camp at Morristown.  GW, who had yet to visit Mount Vernon through nearly five years of war, had granted the requests of many of his generals for leave of absence during the winter months.  In a letter of 6 Feb. recalling Brig. Gen. Edward Hand to camp, GW spoke of his distress from the lack of general officers to assist him and the difficulty he experienced in conducting the “ordinary business of the Army.”

In these weeks, GW strove to improve the professionalism of the Continental army.  He made this the theme of many general orders.  On 31 Jan., he called on his officers to spend more time in camp attending to the discipline of their men, as well as for them to “effect a more strict observance” of army regulations.  On 8 Feb., GW set up procedures by which he could be advised daily by the captains of the guard of “whatever requires notice” in and about the camp.  And on 12 Feb., he called on his major generals and brigadiers “by the closest personal attention” to “police” their corps, correct “disorders,” and introduce an “exact conformity” to army regulations.  But there also is evidence in general orders that some officers were balking at the performance of routine duties, such as sitting on courts-martial.  On 16 Feb., GW called attention to the “delays and neglects” of officers assigned to sit on court-martial boards.  He also sought to improve the professional appearance and esprit-de-corps of the army.  On 23 Feb., he wrote to the Board of War about obtaining swords for his non-commissioned officers as well as drums, fifes, and standards for the regiments.

GW also was dissatisfied with the general state of the regiments.  In his 22 Jan. circular to the army’s major generals and brigadiers, he queried his senior officers on a range of issues reported to him by the inspector general.  Faulty muster reports, an excessive number of officers on furlough, improper distribution of non-commissioned officers in the brigades, wastage and deficiency of arms, and unexplained absences of officers and men all fell under GW’s disapproving glare.

In the final week covered by this volume, GW’s administrative burden was increased by having to oversee negotiations to establish a cartel for the exchange of prisoners of war.  On 4 Jan., GW had forwarded to Huntington the British proposals for the negotiation.  And on 27 Jan., Huntington had advised GW that Congress had committed the entire negotiation to his “prudence & discretion.”  After arranging details of the meeting, GW on 8 March appointed three officers to meet with the British representatives and issued them detailed instructions.

Several letters from well-known figures of the Revolution appear in this volume.  In a rare instance of direct communication between the two leaders of the Revolution on either side of the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin addressed a letter to GW on 5 March.  Franklin noted that Lafayette, now in France, was active in supporting the American cause.  During the period of this volume, Lafayette was instrumental in arranging for a French expeditionary army to come to the American continent, and he was pivotal in obtaining arms and ammunition for the Continental army.  Franklin himself had worked mightily to fund and arrange for the shipment of the arms and ammunition.

Also in the last week of this volume, Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold addressed a letter to GW.  On 6 March, Arnold explained his desire to take command of a proposed naval expedition under the auspices of the Board of Admiralty.  He asked GW to provide a detachment from the army to embark on the Continental frigates. In reality, Arnold most likely had proposed the scheme with the hope of gaining prize money that would ease his distressed financial condition.  GW’s rejection of the scheme moved Arnold further down the road to treason.

Several letters and documents in the volume give rare insight into GW’s personal life.  In a letter of 4 Feb. to his friend Robert Morris, a Philadelphia merchant, GW expressed his inclination to accept an invitation from Morris to spend some of the winter with him but lamented that “public duty” necessitated his remaining with the army at Morristown.  He would, he explained to Morris, have to forgo such “social enjoyments” until the end of the war.

Although the Morristown winter probably was the most difficult one that GW faced as commander in chief, it was not entirely bleak.  Martha had joined the general on 31 Dec. 1779 and continued to reside with him at the Ford mansion for the duration of the winter.  GW, along with many of his officers, attended dancing assemblies at Morristown, and the general received a gift of Madeira wine, his favorite, from Morris.  Congress also kept their general in mind when it came to gifts. In February, the delegates sent GW a gift of two pipes of Madeira that had been recovered from a wrecked ship.

Jacket Essay

With Volume 24 of the Revolutionary War Series, the conflict enters a new decade. New Year’s Day 1780 finds Washington in winter quarters at Morristown, N.J., having established his headquarters at the Ford mansion there one month earlier.

During the weeks covered by this volume, the Continental army experienced the harshest winter of the war. But the severity of the winter did not prevent Washington from mounting an offensive against British forces. Ice had formed a natural bridge to Staten Island, and Washington decided to use the situation to launch a major attack on the enemy’s forts there. He assigned Major General Stirling to command the assault with a force of 2,600 troops. Stirling launched the assault as planned in the early morning of 15 January, but the next day he had to report to Washington that the operation had failed. Although the attack was fruitless, it provides evidence of Washington’s aggressive generalship: a major winter attack designed to cut off and capture enemy garrisons.

Washington’s enemy was not idle either. In addition to several raids on New Jersey towns and surprise attacks on outlying detachments, the British launched one operation with a far more ambitious goal: to seize Washington at the Ford mansion and carry him into New York City as a prisoner. The attack failed, but it was the deep snow–and not American bullets–that stopped the cavalry force sent to capture Washington.

Enemy operations, however, were not the greatest threat to the survival of Washington’s army. The harshness of the winter, the precarious state of Continental finances, and the resulting lack of provisions threatened his forces with starvation. To feed his troops, Washington implemented an emergency “requisition” of provisions throughout New Jersey.

As usual, administration of the army consumed much of Washington’s time. In addition to obtaining supplies, he had to oversee recruiting the army, obtaining clothing for his men, negotiating for the exchange of prisoners, and conducting inspections, as well as attending to the professionalism and discipline of the army. His burden became so heavy that in February he felt it would be “impossible” for him to execute the duties of commander in chief unless he received more support from his senior officers.

Several letters to or from well-known figures of the Revolution appear in this volume, including Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Morris. Washington’s letter to Morris gives rare insight into the general’s personal life. The commander in chief expressed his inclination to accept Morris’s invitation to spend some of the winter with him, but he lamented that “public duty” necessitated remaining with the army at Morristown. He would, he explained to Morris, have to forgo such “social enjoyments” until the end of the war.

Benjamin L. Huggins, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 24, 1 January – 9 March 1780. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2016.

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